Skye crofter believed to be last to swim cattle for grazing
In the days before ferry boats, bridges, (and lorries), farmers and crofters from the islands still had to get their livestock to and from markets on the mainland, where the best prices were to be had.
If they were lucky, then at low tide, the water level would have fallen to the extent that the beasts could wade across between the island and mainland, but the crossing would generally be a rather more hazardous, and they would have to swim. At best, the low tide would reduce the distance slightly, and provide a brief respite in the current, which could sweep away any unwary animals, or those that chose not to follow the herd or pack. While those that had previously made the crossing were used it, and knew where they were going, there was always the danger that first-timers could head off in the wrong direction – and the other might follow. This meant it was essential for the owner to keep the animals on the correct line for the opposite shore, and catch any strays before the wandered too far.
Described by the BBC as ‘The last crofter in Scotland to swim his cattle between winter grazings’, Iain MacDonald is a 79-year-old crofter who grazes his cattle on a small island off Skye, and is believed to be the last person to still move his animals this way, having done so for 61 years – without losing a single animal.
In the early days, he swam with the animals, but now uses a rowing boat, and has no intention of giving up this method of ferrying his animals.
He is not alone in maintaining traditional methods of farming, and on the Western Isles, sea shepherds tend flocks of sheep on pastures of the Shiant Islands off the coast of Lewis, and Pabbay off Harris.
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